Making the Choice: Bitter or Better

As seen in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on 6/21/15

Eight summers ago I crafted my first column for these pages. With no plan, but a calling, I set my life on a new course, despite my editor’s observation that I’d picked a bad time to get into the newspaper business.

Life changed dramatically after that conversation. In December 2009, my husband died of a heart attack. I was the stepmother of two adult children, the mother of an adult son with autism and the 15-year-old daughter who was home alone when her dad died. In a heartbeat, I became a member of the freakin’ widows club.

I’d survived many life challenges before I learned the news from an emergency room physician in a long-distance call. The loss of my husband took me to my knees; it could have destroyed me. But I found an unexpected catalyst to healing – my passion for storytelling.

Though my goal is to inform, illuminate and inspire others, writing and speaking have served those functions for me as well. Emboldened by my platform, I’ve overcome my shyness, reaching out to interesting people and organizations eager to share their stories. I’ve broken out of my suburban bubble and gone on amazing adventures.

I’ve gravitated towards people who deal with challenges with tenacity and grace. I’ve woven many of their stories into my first book (just released), “Bitter or Better: Grappling With Life on the Op-Ed Page.” Their stories, woven into my own, remind us we are both students and teachers in life.

Last summer I interviewed Tani Austin, cofounder of Starkey Foundation. I sought an interview because I was curious about the annual gala that draws celebrities and raises millions to support Starkey’s mantra: to help the world to hear. The interview prompted invitations to attend the gala and to participate in a medical mission trip to Peru. In August, my daughter and I joined a Starkey team and fitted children, adults, and octogenarians with hearing aids, opening a new world for them, and my eyes to an unfamiliar culture.

I met with Mary Jo Copeland, winner of the Presidential Citizens Medal, and learned how her mother sent her to school in filthy clothes with garbage in her lunch bag. Despite – or because of – her painful childhood, Copeland has devoted her life to helping the less fortunate by serving meals, washing feet, and providing housing through Sharing and Caring Hands.

I doggedly sought an interview with author Vince Flynn, asking many mutual friends to introduce us before one obliged. We met several times and he spoke candidly about his dyslexia, the military and clandestine services, and the cancer that claimed him two years ago. He inspired me with encouraging words that became the foreword for Bitter or Better.

I’ve become an admirer of men who make their living in the football arena but mentor others through words and actions. Kevin Warren, COO of the Minnesota Vikings, was schooled the hard way on a tenet my mother also instilled: life is not fair. Warren embraced the message and became the highest-ranking black man in the NFL.

Minnesota Gophers Coach Jerry Kill suppressed his reluctance to speak about his epilepsy, becoming a champion for children and adults alike.

A substitute teacher told Darrell Thompson he would never amount to anything. Yet, he set records as a Golden Gopher and played for the Green Bay Packers. Today he leads Bolder Options, a nonprofit that pairs at-risk youth with mentors.

I’ve learned how action can untether one from dormancy and change another’s life. It’s almost effortless – delivering a meal, donating blood or bone marrow, or establishing a nonprofit. Jeanne Murphy Curtis stepped forward in the wake of Superstorm Sandy and rallied others to replenish items for families who lost everything in the natural disaster. My family pitched in, reminding us that helping others is a gratifying and useful distraction from our own woes.

I connected with Smile Network International, an organization Kim Valentini started because she wanted to travel and to make a difference in others’ lives. I made a second trip to Peru and watched as volunteer medical personnel transformed children with a surgery that is often a luxury for families who struggle to put food on the table.

I’ve been reminded that everything in life is relative; that the small Minneapolis hospital room where my daughter underwent a bone marrow transplant is luxurious compared to the Peruvian hospital bearing no soap or toilet paper in the bathrooms.

I’ve come to realize that everyone is grappling with something, be it addiction, mental illness, caregiving, autism, disease – the list is endless. I’ve found strength in solidarity; a recognition that exposing vulnerability can foster kinship and understanding.

While every experience and lesson has been valuable, the most powerful arrived at an unexpected time and place. Months after my husband died I met a priest at St. Thomas Academy. I unloaded my grief and probed for answers to questions such as why the good die young.

He offered a response: “I can’t explain why you’ve experienced so much adversity in your life. All I can say is that when faced with challenges, we have a choice. We can become bitter. Or we can become better.”

Those nine words became my North Star. The path illuminated, I’ve made my choice. I hope the message and these stories, recounted in Bitter or Better, will benefit fellow travelers as they navigate the inevitable challenges life promises.